PONCE, Puerto Rico — The Rev. Angel Santiago remembers exactly where he was Jan. 7 when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Puerto Rico — in his bed in the parsonage of First Methodist Church of the Resurrection. It was 4:30 a.m.
“Everything is moving — moving up and down and to the side,” he said. “God bless that I didn’t feel any panic. I stand up, put on my pants. … I opened the door. … I hear the neighbors screaming, all in the street.”
Five minutes later, there was an aftershock. Ten minutes after that, the tsunami warnings went off.
Because they live in a lower-lying part of the island, Santiago and his neighbors evacuated to a designated spot in the mountains. Santiago said he was worried, but he took his time preparing a bag and gathering his dog.
“My rational side controlled my emotional side,” he said.
Getting to the evacuation site was anything but calm. “It’s a surprise for me because it was a jam. I arrive at the intersection of road #9 and 190. Both roads are full,” he said. “The people are scared, anxious and waiting for the tsunami because we hear the warning.”
The tsunami didn’t arrive, and at 7:30 a.m. residents returned home.
But not to a sense of safety. Since the earthquakes began in late December, the island’s southern coast has experienced 1,000 magnitude 3-plus earthquakes and 95 magnitude 4 and higher, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The latest was May 2 at a magnitude of 5.4.
Santiago initially slept on a dining room chair with his head on the table. If an aftershock didn’t wake him, his dog would feel it and put his head in Santiago’s lap, alerting him. Others in his neighborhood slept in their cars or on balconies and patios.
“This waiting until the earthquake comes if very difficult,” Santiago said. “But two to three weeks feeling the same way, the earthquake in the morning or through the day, I adapt. I try to focus on the work of the church with the congregation.”
That constant stress is one of the biggest challenges to people’s recovery, said Glorymar Rivera-Báez, program director for disaster recovery with Rebuilding Communities with Hope (REHACE), a nonprofit of The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.
REHACE was incorporated in 2002 as the social arm of the church. It serves vulnerable populations, particularly children, women and seniors.
“Emotional care has been one of the main areas of need documented so far,” Rivera-Báez said. “With a hurricane, you experience the hurricane and right away you can start with the recovery. … But with earthquakes, you don’t know for sure when it’s going to take place (and) you can’t say for sure the earthquake you just experienced is going to be the last.”
That’s why REHACE began a program to help people be emotionally resilient after a disaster. A $50,000 grant from the Florida United Methodist Foundation is giving the effort a much-needed boost.
An experienced helping hand
REHACE staff and volunteers know what they’re doing when it comes to disaster response, thanks to Hurricane Maria.
The Category 4 storm hit the island Sept. 20, causing an estimated $100 billion in damage and 2,975 deaths.
“The church is God. A lot of people maybe see a structure, but it’s not a structure. It’s God.” — Francisco Rangel
In addition to coordinating relief immediately after the storm, REHACE provided case management to 2,711 families in 35 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities and made repairs to 811 houses. It hired translators, psychologists, social workers and skilled home repair workers. Advisors from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) rounded out the team.
To meet the needs, the REHACE staff grew from five to 180.
Rivera-Báez estimates it will take at least 10 years for the island to recover. By late last year, tens of thousands of people were still living in houses covered with blue tarps, according to a New York Times report.
But with $21.2 million in grant money from UMCOR and aid from 2,565 volunteers, REHACE has helped people and churches make significant strides.
One factor driving its mission is the level of poverty on the island — 43.1 percent in 2018, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. That’s higher than the U.S. national rate of 13.1 percent and more than double the poverty rate of 19.7 percent in Mississippi, a state with one of the highest rates in 2018.
Rivera-Báez says it has only increased for those who stayed on the island after Maria.
Then came the earthquakes and aftershocks.
A new response
REHACE has been coordinating relief and recovery on two of Puerto Rico’s 143 islands and in 25 municipalities. They’re located on the southwestern part of the island, which was hardest hit.
Most depend on the government to subsidize their budgets, Rivera-Báez said, and the annual income in one is less than $15,000. On the island of Vieques, 100 percent of the children live below poverty levels.
Of the island’s 3.2 million residents, 30,000 registered for the government’s individual assistance program, Rivera-Báez said. Nearly two months after the major quakes, people were still living in cars, tents and shelters.
The agency is now focusing on two phases of recovery: emotional and spiritual care and case management. Most of the foundation grant will support the first emphasis.
The Revs. Mark Becker and Sandra Santiago, the foundation’s president and regional stewardship consultant, traveled to REHACE headquarters in San Juan in late February to deliver the grant money and hear its plans.
“We are all into this process of learning and re-evaluating … how to manage the unpredictability,” Rivera-Báez said. “That’s why one of our focuses will be helping people cope with emotions and stress after this type of event, providing them those tools they could incorporate into their living process.”
The program will be a combination of workshops and group therapy, with people referred to individual counseling and other community programs as needed.
The work has already begun with the island’s children and youth.
“We see a lot of young people with very high anxiety levels,” said Bishop Hector F. Ortiz, episcopal leader of The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, at the February meeting. “This weekend we have children from the southwest with their fathers and mothers at a retreat in the camp in the mountains. It’s a healing retreat.”
Clinical psychologists, social workers and pastors worked with the families throughout the weekend and at a similar event held three weeks prior.
“In our group of REHACE, we have a psychologist from our local churches that works to bring resources, skills, clinical intervention that helps people move forward,” Ortiz said. “We use the camp retreat experience as a time-out for working with emotions in a safe environment and support the children (so they) have the skill to face the stress.”
Future workshops will take place in regions that have Methodist churches, but the target will be the community. The goal is to provide assistance to 1,200 people.
The foundation grant will also fund three case managers working with 105 families.
“We really value any contribution we receive with humble hearts,” Rivera-Báez said. “We have been blessed by so many people who have been holding us in prayer, in their thoughts.”
Moving forward in faith
Meanwhile, the Rev. Angel Santiago has been providing emotional support to his congregation.
Santiago estimates 15 percent of his 130 members were affected by the earthquakes, with some relocating outside Ponce because their homes were so damaged.
He’s also helping them cope with the loss of their worship and meeting space. The historic church was one of two Methodist churches forced to close due to structural damage.
“This is the other part in the pastoral care,” Santiago said. “It makes the situation more difficult. How I counsel, support the people, understanding how they feel, but at the same time, how I guide them to see the new reality.”
The church will be repaired, he says, but it will take years and could cost as much as $2 million.
And because the church is a historic building, all repairs must follow specifications outlined by the island’s Institute of Culture, down to the original wood used in the roof and other parts of the structure.
The congregation has continued to meet, however, thanks to support from REHACE and other Methodist churches.
Immediately after the major quakes, Resurrection members were invited to worship in a church they had launched. Three weeks later, they were in a space of their own.
The congregation had bought a warehouse near the historic church years before but couldn’t decide how to use it. Leaders eventually rented it to a missionary group from Jacksonville, Florida, as a gathering and living space for the work teams it brought to Puerto Rico during the summer. Because it wasn’t used the rest of the year, it was deteriorating.
Church leaders decided the space was their only viable option for a temporary home.
Two weeks later, a team of 60 volunteers from a missioners group at Santiago’s home church helped 40 Resurrection members renovate the building. REHACE paid for many of the supplies and sent volunteers to help.
The team painted, repaired the roof and built a stage and altar area, retrofitting the space. They began on a Saturday at 9 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m. Final touches to the stage were completed one week later, with the space consecrated Feb. 9.
“We never thought we could fix this building, the new sanctuary, in less than three weeks,” Santiago said. “We just pray and move in faith. We do what we are supposed to do and leave the rest to God.”
During the consecration service, Santiago said Ortiz shared how he had recently corrected people who commented on the church being closed. He would tell them the sanctuary is closed, but the church is alive.
“In the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the crisis, in the middle of the loss, in the middle of the anxiety, we can share the love of God, the presence of God and the grace of God.” — Rev. Angel Santiago
Resurrection member Francisco Rangel couldn’t agree more.
“The church is God,” he said. “A lot of people maybe see a structure, but it’s not a structure. It’s God.”
Rangel admitted feeling emotional when he first saw the damage to the sanctuary. He and others never thought the structure was so fragile. But he also says he had hope.
“What makes (the church) great is us,” he said. “We’re the heart. … God has a way of working, letting you know, ‘It’s not the structure, it’s me.’ So when I started looking at it and all that happened and then we made this (new building), I said, ‘God, you are just amazing.’ Little by little this is coming together.”
That’s the other part of the tragedy, the positive part, Santiago says.
“In the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the crisis, in the middle of the loss, in the middle of the anxiety,” he said, “we can share the love of God, the presence of God and the grace of God.”